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Monday, 15 June 2009


I’ve often argued that homeopathy shouldn’t necessary be dismissed, just because its mechanism isn’t (yet?) known. It may turn out to be bunkum, but the jury’s still out.

I don’t argue against the naysayers just because they say its efficacy can’t be proven or because they don’t believe it works. I argue against them because they simply dismiss it out of hand. Effectively, if there isn’t a man with a white coat and a clipboard and several strings of letters after his name recognised by official bodies, it can’t work, they say.

You find these naysayers among humanists and in the National Secular Society and among people who call themselves freethinkers.

Now this study that the Daily Mail reports on doesn’t entirely convince me, but it does tell me that there could be something in it – something we just haven’t got to grips with yet, perhaps something to be found in quantum field theory, which I understand has something to say about homeopathy.

There’s been a lot of anecdotal evidence in favour of homeopathy’s efficacy, and, quite rightly, anecdotal evidence doesn’t convince the scientist. But it ought to make the scientist want to do more science.

This story doesn’t use the term “double-blind”, but I think we can safely assume that, if the trial was done by scientists, they would have used the method that ensures that information about which pill was the placebo and which one was the homeopathic medicine is kept from the subjects and those administering the stuff.

I recognise, also, that this study was done by doctors at a homeopathic hospital, and that should be factored into our assessment of it. It does not mean we should dismiss it, but we should be cautious.

So we can’t say QED, necessarily, not just yet, but this is enough to make us open our minds again to the possibilities that some things operate at a level we’re just not that familiar with – but one that, in principle, science can grapple with.
NOTE: You may also be interested in a letter in Saturday's Guardian that reads:

The apparent success of homeopathy for many patients is puzzling. But [the Liberal Democrat MP and National Secular Society honorary vice president] Dr Evan Harris MP is wrong to say it is “known not to be effective” (“£12m spend on homeopathy hard to swallow”, “Society”, 10 June). In fact, out of six reviews of the scientific evidence carried out by the independent and respected Cochrane Collaboration, two are cautiously positive and four inconclusive. There is also some evidence to say that homeopathy may be effective in the long term for chronic intractable problems. Inconvenient for those who oppose integrated healthcare perhaps, but very different from demonstrating homeopathy is “ineffective”.

If the NHS were to withdraw access to homeopathy, it would not save the £4m a year it currently spends. Patients now receiving homeopathy would still need treatment, almost certainly at a higher cost and with greater risk of side effects from treatment. The mistake made by Dr Harris and Professor Edzard Ernst is to assume that we have effective treatments for all conditions and all patients. We don’t. Some patients cannot tolerate existing treatments, often those with multiple morbidity – suffering from several conditions, each needing different treatment. For some conditions, we have no effective treatment at all. Is it morally acceptable to deny patients access to a well-established treatment they find effective when no conventional treatment is available? We would suggest not.

Professor George Lewith, professor of health research, University of Southampton

Dr Michael Dixon, medical director, Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health

Dr Peter Fisher, clinical director, Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital

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